SHEFFIELD, UK – A sophisticated robotwith a suite of laser and fiber optic-basedsensors is being developed to detect illicitsubstances concealed in cargo containersat airports and seaports.
The 30-cm-long robot, dubbed the“cargo-screening ferret,” would be theworld’s first to operate inside standardfreight containers and the first designed todetect illegal immigrants and all kinds ofillicit substances, including drugs,weapons and explosives.
Dr. Tony J. Dodd, who is leading theproject at the University of Sheffield, saidthe robot’s name has more to do withwhat it does than with how itlooks. Long and thin like a ferret, or its cousin, theweasel, it can navigate throughsmall spaces,emulating theanimal’s slinkymovements.
“We are very
excited about the possi-
bilities for the cargo-
screening ferret. We believe the robot will
enhance the ability of border agents to de-
tect contraband in cargo and will act as a
deterrent to smugglers,” Dodd said. “We
hope the ferret robot will form part of a
team of robotic detection systems for the
UK Border Agency.”
Current methods for screening cargo
rely largely on sniffer dogs and external
scanners that provide information only
about the shape and density of objects or
substances within the containers. The fer-
ret, on the other hand, will house sensors
that will be able to detect not only the tini-
est traces of illicit substances found in
drugs and explosives but also the smallest
amounts of carbon dioxide, indicating
When placed inside a steel freight container, the ferret will attach itself to thetop. Magnetic wheels will allow it tomove about in search of contraband, allthe while sending a steady stream of information back to the controller.
Dodd said that the design of the mag-
netic wheels has proved more challenging
than anticipated. The original design,
Because the current design is based on
the robot clinging magnetically to the
sides or ceiling of the container, the pos-
sibility that newly manufactured contain-
ers could be constructed of nonferrous
materials could prove challenging. Al-
though Dodd admits that this could be
troublesome, he emphasizes that the
many millions of steel containers in the
world will continue to be used for many
The three-year project, which began inOctober 2008, is being funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences ResearchCouncil (EPSRC) and also involves theUniversity of Glasgow, LoughboroughUniversity, City University (London) anddefense and security specialist QinetiQInc.
Working prototypes of the cargo-screening ferret could be ready for testing withintwo years and for deployment within fiveyears.
Krista D. Zanollikrista.email@example.comTECHNEWS
Robo-weasel could sniff out
This is a prototype of thecargo-screening ferret.Courtesy of EPSRC.